Wednesday, July 11, 2018

MIDTERMS: THE BEST OF 2018 (SO FAR)



Here it is, the second week of July already, and I feel as though I’ve barely seen anything in the realm of theatrical movies. Compared to the average movie critic anyway, who probably sees three or four (new) movies a week, to say nothing of the ones she/he sees at home. But my movie consumption rate is still probably more ravenous than the average bear, and so at the risk of exposing just how limited my perspective is, I present to you my best of 2018 at the midpoint, ten movies (six of which are already available for home viewing) I think you should catch up with. The first three are particularly good (which is why they get a little more space, I suppose), and at first glance they might seem like strange bedfellows. But each one suggests a different mode of looking at life—quiet, measured, open to unexpected responses—or at the very least, in a world subsumed by superheroes and other forms of sensational overload, a different way of looking at movies, to say nothing of a different kind of movie to look at.

The others on the list are merely terrific. Certainly, it was a pleasure to have seen enough really good movies by July that, in order to keep myself to the traditional ten I had to leave an accomplished thriller like Hereditary or a heartfelt comedy drama like Love, Simon off my list. (I fully expect raised hackles over excluding at least Hereditary in favor of the last two lustrous pearls on my list.) But the less said about the year’s most serious bummers, including Ava Du Vernay’s A Wrinkle In Time, Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline and (sorry, fanboys) the Russo brothers’ Avengers: Infinity War, the better. On to the good stuff.


Paul Schrader's First Reformed is, I think, truly a movie for our moment. It’s an exquisitely tormented consideration of faith (and the lack thereof), the difficult possibility of transcendence, and the seemingly even more difficult act of holding ostensibly opposed impulses of hope and despair in balance without completely losing one's shit. And it speaks to the faithful in terms of what even the faithless see directly in front of them. Ethan Hawke is exceptional as the tortured pastor counseling the husband of a parishioner despondent over the dire implications of climate change, and the transference of that burden of responsibility from counseled to counsellor addresses one of the pastor’s central spiritual crises, a profound insecurity over whether can God forgive us for what we’ve done. The movie is a brilliantly sustained act of tension between the spiritual and the corporeal (and the influence of each on the other), building toward an act of desperate release, of a man trying to make a mark on the world, on his own soul. Hawke’s pastor, exiled in his doubt and overseeing a historically significant house of worship made into a sparsely attended tourist trap under the stewardship of a corporate-style megachurch, truly is God's lonely man. Over all of Schrader's most personal work, including Taxi Driver, with which this movie shares some stylistic devices derived from transcendental filmmakers like Robert Bresson, as well as its suffocating sense of isolation, this film feels the most piercing, the one that hurts the most, the one that offers the possibility of mortification and the bearable weight of an earthly yoke in equal measure as penance for divine deliverance. It's the best movie I've seen so far in 2018.


It's possible that society, especially American society, might have continued to undervalue the contribution of Fred Rogers to civil discourse and the general well-being. But Morgan Neville’s fascinating, unexpectedly (even overwhelmingly) emotional documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  seems poised to become the best of all possible insurances against the man’s ever evaporating from our collective neighborhood. Prior experience with the PBS program which, from 1968 to 2001 provided an oasis for children from the crass relentlessness of most Saturday-morning kid-oriented fare, isn’t required to appreciate this rich overview of Fred Rogers’ achievements as the overseer of a singular corner of television influence. But one’s own memories of spending time in the Neighborhood is likely to make the tears come faster and with more force. And those unfamiliar with Rogers’ work as anything but a Saturday Night Live joke may find themselves surprised by the level to which this articulate advocate for the spirit of childhood (Rogers was an ordained minister whose specific religious views never overtly became part of the program’s content) used his genteel pulpit to help children of the ‘60s and ‘70s deal with some harsh realities, like racism, childhood disease and even political assassination.  Neville’s great achievement, apart from crafting a wonderful, surely enduring film, is to secure Rogers’ reputation as not only a children’s champion in guiding young ones through the process of discovering the world, but one for showing those kids who became adults a way of living in it once their own discoveries had been made.


Probably the most denigrating thing I can think of say about Debra Granik’s intense, affecting familial drama Leave No Trace is that it sports a somewhat generic title which evaporates almost immediately upon contact with the eyes and ears. Not so the movie itself, however. The story involves a PTSD-inflicted war veteran Will (Ben Foster) who has taken himself and his daughter Tom (newcomer Thomasin Harcourt Mackenzie) off the grid, making for them a quiet, if illegal, existence living off the land in a forested park within Portland, Oregon city limits. Once they’re reined in by social service agents and given a taste of being reintegrated back into society, the father bristles, but the daughter realizes that, though she wants nothing more than to be with her dad, a modest life among modest people is pretty appealing too. What’s genuinely marvelous about Granik’s approach, especially with Mackenzie, is the way director and actress make clear the dawning difference between parent and child without pressing home the metaphoric significance. Mackenzie’s Tom eases into a world of new experiences with a child’s natural curiosity—sea horses she reads about in books, flag dancers at a local church, 4-H kids raising rabbits, learning about the temperament and tendencies of hive bees—while her dad remains at a measured distance, his mind never far away from the clarion call of an isolated existence to which he longs to return. By the time Tom declares to Will that “the same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me,” the movie has fulfilled its unhurried journey toward sublimity, with myriad opportunities for its audience to appreciate the nuanced, rarified air of a soul discovering itself, asserting independence, breathing in the world.

The rest of the best, in descending order:

Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)
Thoroughbreds (Cory Finley)
Annihilation (Alex Garland)
Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird)
The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci)
Blockers (Kay Cannon)
Rampage (Brad Peyton)

Bring on Skyscraper!

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Tuesday, July 03, 2018

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION



Saturday, June 09, 2018

SIXTEEN YEARS OF MOVIE LOVE WITH MY HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATE



My eldest daughter graduated from high school this week, an event that most parents who have been through it before will understand can be stressful and emotional traumatic, for the eager graduates, of course, but for us old codgers too. For her, the promise of a new road ahead, full of uncertainty, new experiences and challenges, is exciting and frightening in close-to-equal measure. For her mom and dad, even though she’s not going to a school very far away geographically, it’s a signpost of a newfound independence that is only going to gain strength until one day (though not immediately) there will be one less chirping, shrieking, laughing voice echoing through the modest halls of our house.

And for me, it means that my first daughter may not be around as much to keep her old man happy by going with him to the movies. I took her to her first movie, Shrek, when she was only one year old, and the bout of night terrors she experienced that very same sleepless night (her one and only tangle with them, thank God) signaled that she may not have been entirely ready for the wonders of the motion picture. About a year later we embarked on our moviegoing adventure together in earnest (some details about that experience follow below), and it’s been great fun—for both of us, I’d like to presume—navigating the Pixar years (which, if Coco is any indication, are far from over) and into more adventurous and mature terrain as the years passed by.

We saw a lot of classic films together at various venues in and about Los Angeles over the span of 16 years, giving her a much broader base of experience and understanding of what movies were and how they reached the incarnation her generation is most familiar with than most kids her age. And, naturally, I often wrote about the experiences. One of those pieces, "I Didn't Know a Cowboy Movie Could Be So Emotional,"
 touches on a little of our then-nascent journey with classic movies, this one centered around a great screening of John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven.

But the piece that follows here, written in 2008, a couple of months before the Magnificent Seven post, details a moviegoing experience on her preferred turf at the time. I realize that most readers of this column might not be particularly interested in an account of a 10-year-old kid’s movie musical, itself the apex of a schoolyard phenomenon that actually began two years earlier, in 2006, as an unexpectedly popular TV movie. But High School Musical 3: Senior Year is really only tangentially the subject of the account that follows. What I was really interested in writing about was the process of instilling, or trying to instill, movie love in my kids as a natural part of their growing, learning, and maturing process, which is potentially a subject of broader interest that the on-screen antics of the squeaky-clean students of East High and whether or not Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens could keep their love strong. (The lesson on the difference between screen romance and real-life romance would come later.) I think I got at quite of bit of that, at least from one father’s shepherding experience, in the piece I’ve refurbished for you today in tribute to my own daughter’s marking one of life’s first big mile markers. I can only hope that you will agree.

Oh, and Happy Graduation Day, Emma!

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As a relatively responsible movie-going parent, I’ve always been curious as to how much of an influence our children’s response to the movies we take them to work to color our own. One of the first movies I ever took my first daughter to, when she was two years of age, was Monsters, Inc. Of course, she loved it. She even reached up midway through the movie to give me an unsolicited kiss, as if to say, “Thanks for taking me to this movie.” I came away convinced that Monsters, Inc. was a masterpiece of children’s entertainment, and that sublime ending, with Sulley peeking through the doorway at a sleeping Boo, did nothing to dispel that notion. (Neither did my daughter’s resemblance to Boo at the time do anything to dampen my happiness over our experience.) Thus began a history of taking my daughter(s) to the movies, one in which we’ve endured plenty of duds (any chance I could trade in our two screenings of Open Season or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for one more shot at Wall-E on the big screen?), but one which I’ve also had some genuinely lovely experiences. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed movies together (Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D) that are unlikely to end up on anyone list of children’s classics. And I’ve been blessed to be able to turn them into fans of the drive-in movie, thanks to that quintessentially American format’s unlikely local renaissance courtesy of theaters like the Mission Tiki Drive-in, the Vineland Drive-in, the Rubidoux Drive-in, and the Van Buren Drive-in.

(There exists somewhere a videotape of me and my then three-month old daughter taken in 2000 at the now-defunct Foothill Drive-in in Azusa, CA, in which I guide her on a tour of the near-deserted lot just before movie time and express my regret that by the time she’s old enough to see them drive-ins will likely be completely extinct. Thank God for my inability to suitably conjure Nostradamus for my inaccurate prognostications.)


Finally, this summer we definitely rode that same wavelength in our mutual adoration of Speed Racer. After spending the movie’s opening day simmering in a downtown jury room awaiting the call that would ultimately never come, I spent a goodly portion of my downtime reading the Los Angeles Times and various other sources (accessed on the courtroom’s $5.00-a-hour Internet access computers) as they proclaimed Speed Racer to be an incoherent dud the scale of which could ultimately bring down its studio, Warner Brothers, after an epic botch of the movie’s marketing. (These were, after all, the bleak days before a certain Dark Knight came and cheered up everybody on the WB Burbank lot.) To celebrate my release from jury duty sans commitment to an actual trial (the system works, folks), I called my daughters and told them to make plans—we were gonna head out to see Speed Racer, my thinking being that if nothing else it would be a boatload of fun witnessing just how far off the rails a major studio movie can go in this age of buttoned-down, micro-precise marketing strategies. At dinner before the movie, we encountered a waiter who overheard us talking about seeing a movie afterward, and when he found out what we were seeing this rather tall, imposing gentleman immediately revealed himself to be a hyperactive member of the uber-geek community. He’d seen Speed Racer earlier in the day (remember, this is opening day) and was hard-pressed to contain his enthusiasm. He implored us to come back and let him know how we liked it, and I thought to myself, “You’re a nice guy, Bub, but you’re not gonna want to hear what I’m probably gonna think about this movie.”

I couldn’t have been less surprised when my daughters began immediately squealing with delight over the candy-colored antics of the Wachowski Brothers’ movie splashing with abandon upon the wide screen. But I kept waiting for that moment when, rather than giving in to the abandon, I had to shut down in the name of self-protection and begin actively rejecting the nonsense. That moment never came. And about three-quarters of the way into the movie, sometime either during or just after the movie’s spectacularly disorienting Fuji race, its track deliberately evocative of the loop-de-loop Hot Wheels tracks of my youth, I turned to my oldest daughter with a huge grin on my face and admitted, “I love this movie!” I spent the remainder of its short summer theatrical run returning to Speed Racer, five times in all, and twice in IMAX, with my daughters and my friend Don, the only other grown-up I know who seems to understand. (The night of the movie’s release on DVD I got a message from him that stated simply, “Have you watched it yet?”)


But then, my kids also loved Open Season. And Indiana Jones and that cheesy crystal skull. And Steve Martin’s remake of The Pink Panther. And Madagascar. And countless other crass movies pitched primarily to their demographic which I, either proudly or sadly, cannot abide. This is the group into which I have traditionally lumped the High School Musical phenomenon. Despite featuring an abundance of tunes that seem to have sprung directly out of a hit-making machine, so insidiously, preternaturally catchy are their hooky melodies, HSM just seemed too Disney-prefab for anyone old enough to be able to draw the line between the adventures of Troy and Gabriella and those of Frankie and Annette. Of course, the entire raison d’etre of HSM is giving the elementary school set a freshly scrubbed look into a universe that they’ll soon be experiencing, with all its real-world complications, soon enough, thank you. And of course, that universe doesn’t resemble reality in any meaningful way beyond the carefully marketed multiculturalism of its casting, which is, I suspect, an issue of far more importance for those who don’t have kids or are looking for an easily accessible ax to grind with the movies. High School Musical is simply the wrong place to go trolling for evidence of social reality, and to knock the series for the absence of cholas in the hallways of East High School, or because the movies don’t deal with the hard-hitting issues like pregnancy or premarital sex that face today’s teens, is to miss the point entirely.

(Peter Travers’ appalling review of High School Musical 3: Senior Year, in the pages of Rolling Stone, seems to me a particularly egregious and desperate attempt to pander to the demographic and presumed tastes of his magazine’s readership, not to mention their prejudices. “If you're gay and/or eight years old, HSM3 is the movie event of the year,” Travers opines. “From the first leering close-up of Zac Efron shaking off sweat on the basketball court before bursting into sappy song, the movie — like the two TV movies that preceded it — is a nonthreatening sexual marshmallow.” Does that sound like an opening sentence written by a man who isn’t in some way threatened by this innocuous entertainment? Okay, we got ya, Peter--- you’re way too smart, and too butch, for this shit. Sadly, Travers’ review is not an isolated instance of his continued assault on the credibility of film critics, not to mention the music of the English language.)

High School Musical is, again, fantasy, the kind that many of us grew up on in various forms, whether it be Annette and Frankie, or the Tammy movies, or even The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. I don’t see a lot wrong with my daughters having someplace to hang their hopes in a pop culture framework for the life they eagerly anticipate as they get older and school gets tougher. It seems to me they have a right to a fully romanticized idea of high school they can revel in, one which will undoubtedly be snatched away from them far too quickly in any case. (And anyone who subscribes to the Entertainment Weekly-fueled enthusiasm over shows like Gossip Girl or the new 90210 and doesn’t admit that they are simply fantasies of another kind, built on puerile sensationalism and exploitation of trendy attitudes instead of googly-eyed innocence, is conveniently deluded.) I have yet to see the first two TV movies, so the duty of taking my daughters out to see HSM3 fell to my wife, who has indulged the girls’ enthusiasm to a far greater degree than I ever have. (I have been, up to this point, exclusively the one who needles my oldest about Zac’s hunkiness and how I far prefer the perpetually plaid-clad Ryan.)

Of course, my daughters loved the movie—I would have been foolish to expect anything else. (If somebody would have concocted a big-screen version of Jonny Quest when I was eight years old I probably would have similarly flipped out.) What was surprising, however, was the report brought back to me by my wife regarding the reaction of my eldest, the eight-year-old. Patty said that, about midway through the movie, during an emotional number in which Troy, Gabriella and Troy’s best friend Chad confront the reality of Gabriella moving to Stanford (“Just Walk Away”), my daughter, never one to hide her emotions, began weeping openly, uncontrollably. Patty attempted to comfort her, but it was clear that our daughter, to whom these characters were close to real people she has seen grow up over the course of three zippy, poppy movies, was taking their dilemma utterly seriously. And it was breaking her little heart. (It made me think of Pauline Kael’s comment about how, for many people whose primary experiences in the movies were the Star Wars trilogy, it’s understandable how, no matter how raggedy the last chapter, the fates of Luke, Han and Leia might be experienced on a deeper level than some might be willing to concede.)


My daughter’s emotional outbursts were not confined to the scenes involving the separation of her friends, however—the tears continued to flow through the end credits, along with the presumably real tears of the actors on screen who, in taking their final bows, couldn’t help but acknowledge their own emotional responses to the ending of a series that has framed their entire teenaged lives. It was this summing-up that my daughter was finally reacting to—she got to experience, through the power of this prefab little musical phenomenon, feelings about a series of movies that has been hugely important to her. Though they scared her a bit and she didn’t initially know what to do with them, those feelings somehow found an outlet and she felt safe enough to express them.

The following Saturday it rained in and around Los Angeles. Stuck for something to do while my wife spent the afternoon working, curiosity got the best of me and I suggested we three go see High School Musical 3 together. Both my daughters were shocked that I even wanted to see it, and they extracted a promise from me that I would not openly mock the movie throughout. I agreed, and off we went to a Glendale auditorium packed exclusively with moms and daughters, and me. (I feel confident in asserting that I was the only male of any age in attendance that day. Take that, Peter Travers.) Turns out that, for this non-veteran of the HSM experience, the third chapter is a pleasant-enough diversion. My tolerance for chirpiness was tested from time to time, and there was a patch when I was fighting off slumber—a frequent occurrence whenever I hit the matinee circuit—but both my daughters helped me through that rough patch (“Dad, you’re snoring! Knock it off!” cried my youngest, and I don’t think I dozed a wink after that.)

As I suspected, HSM3 is very much a product of Andy Hardy-Annette and Frankie lineage, and it has the same kind of enthusiasm mixed with blithe ignorance of how silly it all must seem to those outside its hermetically sealed universe that is either wearying or cheering, depending on your perspective. As a director, Kenny Ortega proves himself to be a fine choreographer. (Hairspray's Adam Shankman was far more limber and adept at mixing the two vocations.) It’s a good thing that the movie is as packed as it is with catchy, well-staged tunes, because all that people-interacting-with-each-other-sans-backing-track stuff seems beyond Ortega’s reach—- most of the interstitial scenes between production numbers are as flatly lit and imagined as a Swedish pancake, with Ortega seemingly content to turn the camera on in sit-com style proximity to his actors and hope that their toothy grins will carry the day. Fortunately, they usually do, at least long enough to get to the next musical outburst. And at least they neatly capture the kinds of dilemmas young people find earth-shattering—divided allegiance to life pursuits and the difficulty of leaving friends behind are this glossy picture’s meat and potatoes. Thankfully free of the pretension and exploitation that pervades most modern depictions of high school life readily available on cable TV, HSM3 is a movie any adult could see through with little effort. But it’s one that this adult can also fairly effortlessly enjoy, with no ties to the previous installments, and I credit that to the movie’s commitment to its retrograde charms in honoring the emotional pact it has forged with its young audience.

Speaking of which, the moment came when Gabriella must leave for Stanford, and sure enough, my lovely, open-hearted little girl let fly the sobs as she tucked herself in my arms for the duration. And I know I was simply reacting to her reaction, but I didn’t resent the fact that I ended up crying too. Any movie that can touch my daughter without resorting to cheap tactics, but instead by allowing her to get to know a group of kids, the corollaries of whom she’ll likely never meet in real life, kids with little else on their mind but their personal loyalties and that intense need to sing and dance, is okay by me. It doesn’t matter that I don’t necessarily think it’s a great movie. This time it’s enough that she does.

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Friday, June 01, 2018

BRIGHT LIGHTS, SILVER SCREENS, DIMBULBS: THE ADVENTURE CONTINUES



Way back in September I went out on a Saturday night to an AMC theater to see mother! and came home with a headache, induced partially by the movie and partially by my attempts to convince the manager that the image was too dim and that there was something wrong with the way it was being projected.

(You can read all about my "Saturday Night with mother! here.)

Cut to last night. Here comes this article ostensibly about audiences reacting negatively to the purposely low-light imagery in Solo: A Star Wars Story, which is being rendered almost unwatchable in parts thanks to inept projection, specifically the failure to convert projection configurations from their 3D positions to then show a 2D movie (the root cause of the problem that ruined my mother! screening).

So imagine my surprise when I came across this quote from the linked piece here from Some Dude (AKA "a spokesperson for AMC") who claims that in recent years the creation of a Digital Cinema Manager role has resulted in a noticeable drop in AMC customers complaining about a dim picture:

“Digital Cinema Managers are stationed at our larger, marquee theatres around the country and their specific responsibility is to monitor, oversee, and execute all aspects of the presentation on screen,” wrote the AMC spokesperson. “Essentially, they make sure the image on screen is just as the filmmaker intended. Additionally, when issues arise beyond the capabilities of the Digital Cinema Managers, or at locations that do not have a DCM, we have regional technical support within AMC, as well as great partnerships with our projection partners to assist when necessary.”

When I stopped laughing, I continued to read and got to this comment from Chaplin Cutler, cofounder of Boston Light & Sound, one of the industry’s leading consultants on proper projection and theater construction:

"According to Cutler, multiple factors result in the pervasive issue of dark projection. A dirty window in front of the projection can result in a 20 percent reduction of light. At the premium theater where he saw SOLO, he walked to the back row and saw a double light source, which he said signaled that optics for 3D screening were still on the projector for a 2D screening of SOLO. Cutler added that if 3D optics aren’t perfectly calibrated, they will result in the loss of a tremendous amount of light and an out-of-focus 2D image. 'Leaving the 3D optics on happens more often than theaters would like us to think,' said Cutler. 'Most theaters load their projectors on Thursday night and the timed projectors take care of themselves. If a theater runs 2-D screenings in the afternoon and 3-D screening at night, rarely is there someone there to make the adjustments.'”

Sounded pretty familiar to me. But here's the best part:

"When asked about 2D movies playing through a 3D-enabled projector, AMC said it had mandatory procedures in place at every theatre that prohibits 2D movies playing through a 3D lens."

As Bugs Bunny used to say, it is to laugh.

I'm gonna carry a copy of this quote around in my wallet, and the next time I run into this problem at an AMC I'm going to calmly unfold it, insist that the manager read it, and then politely ask him to eat it before I head on out the door.

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Thursday, May 31, 2018

Q: "WHO'S PATSY KELLY?" A:



The following is a slightly re-edited version of a piece that ran during the early days of this blog, posted on April 3, 2007, in which I took some time to acknowledge one of my favorite movie stars, the inimitable force of nature known as Patsy Kelly. Eleven years ago Netflix was yet to become the powerhouse force in streaming home entertainment that it now incarnates; it was still a strictly DVD-by-mail service that allowed as many as three DVDs at once to sit on your shelf for as long as you wanted, until such time as you said “I’ve never gonna watch these” and decided to send the back for three others in your ridiculously long queue. (The normalization of the word “queue” may have been Netflix’s great contribution to American culture during this time.) In those days, Netflix also allowed you to keep abreast of what your “Netflix Friends” were watching, which didn’t make me paranoid at all.

At any rate, if you can adjust to such nostalgic shifts in the text, you may enjoy this modest remembrance of Kelly’s talents, which was inspired by TCM’s showcasing of a recent spate of her films, including the charming There Goes My Heart (1938), in which she plays alongside Fredric March, Virginia Bruce and Harry Langdon as a working-class girl who unknowingly befriends the heiress whose family owns the department store where she’s employed; and the considerably more forgettable sketch-oriented comedy Nobody’s Baby (1937), in which she shares screen time with vaudeville comedienne Lyda Roberti, a Polish émigré who retired from movies after making only two more forgettable movies after Nobody’s Baby, only to die of a heart attack a few months later at the age of 31. Patsy Kelly’s indefatigable spirit dominates these movies, as it did many of the films she appeared in, regardless of the size of her part. That’s about as apt a distillation of her career as could be made, I guess, but as I am wont to do, in 2007 as well as today, I did go on…

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So I innocently logged onto Netflix a few days ago, and I was greeted by a “Movie Note” from a Netflix Friend of mine who had evidently been paying far-too-close attention to my queue and my general tastes. Next to a picture of the cover art for a little-known screwball comedy from 1943 entitled My Son, the Hero was my Friend’s question/comment, jumping off the screen in a large, purple, impossible-to-miss font:

“What prompted this? Doesn't fit your normal Netflix rental pattern at all."

I stared at the question/comment for a few seconds, and then my own question/comments started a-percolatin’: “What is he saying, my fanatical Friend? That I don’t rent enough obscure comedies from the ‘40s? Did he know about the movie and decide that, amongst all of the late-period screwball comedies I could have chosen, this one was so far afield in quality from the others that it merited worried attention? Just how closely is my Friend paying heed to what I’m having sent home to me? (Not that I’m paranoid or anything, but…) Will he feel compelled to chime in again when the reputedly rotten The Life of David Gale (currently #32 with a bullet) finds its way to the surface of my ridiculously long queue? (I probably would.) And why would anyone’s rental patterns but your own (and perhaps even your own) be so fascinating as to merit a question/comment sent down the Netflix pipeline?

I hastily fired back an e-mail, explaining that though I didn’t realize it at the time, the movie was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, a fact that I thought would satisfy my cinephile pal. But then I added the real reason-- “Besides, I’ve got a bit of a Patsy Kelly fixation these days”—and left it at that.

Imagine my surprise when my friend, whose knowledge of cinema, particularly Hollywood genre films, handily surpasses my own in a most complete and embarrassing fashion, shot back a curt reply:

“Who’s Patsy Kelly?”



I realized that if my film-soaked Friend didn’t know who Patsy Kelly was, then it was safe to assume that most casual and even passionately devoted movie buffs, not to mention the audience at large that creates $100 million hits out of movies like Wild Hogs and Norbit, wouldn’t know Patsy Kelly from Marjorie Main or Shirley Booth. (And they probably wouldn’t know who the other two were either.) One of the most popular comediennes in American movies in the 1930s and 1940s, Patsy Kelly, her early movies of this period largely
 unavailable on DVD, now seemed to be vaulted away in musty obscurity with the rest of the stars of a long-forgotten Hollywood.

Patsy was born Bridget Sarah Veronica Rose Kelly in Brooklyn, New York in 1910 and was given the nickname that would stick with her throughout her career by her brother. The actress was discovered by vaudeville star Frank Fay and by 1927 was on Broadway in Harry Delmar's Revels. She also starred on the Great White Way in shows like Three Cheers, Wonder Bar and two for producer Earl Carroll-- Sketch Book (1929) and Vanities (1930).


But after Wonder Bar in 1931, Hollywood, in the personage of producer Hal Roach, came calling, and he signed Kelly to a series of featherweight two-reel comedies co-starring Thelma Todd. Kelly, from the start never one to keep her mind to herself, is quoted as saying about her journey to the movie capital, “"I'll be a flop in movies. Besides, I don't like 'em, and I never did believe there was a place called Hollywood. Somebody made it up!" But it turned out to be a very real place indeed, and the Roach comedies ended up having a very popular run. The encyclopedic John McElwee has lots of good information about the Roach/Todd/Kelly/Pitts shorts in this detailed post on Todd at his blog Greenbriar Picture Shows. However, his comments re Kelly, who replaced Zasu Pitts in the shorts after money issues made it impossible for her to continue, are restricted to one sentence with which I must good-naturedly take issue: “Zazu’s easier to take than Patsy. Even a subdued Patsy (and Patsy was never subdued) is akin to root canal without benefit of anesthesia.” One man’s root canal, I suppose… The series ended after 21 films when Todd died in 1935.


Two years earlier, Kelly broke into features as Marion Davies' wisecracking sidekick in Raoul Walsh’s Going Hollywood, and over the course of the next 10 years she made nearly 40 more films, including The Girl from Missouri (1934), Page Miss Glory (1935), Pigskin Parade (1936), There Goes My Heart (1938), The Cowboy and the Lady (1938), The Gorilla (1939), Topper Returns (1940), In Old CaliforniaMy Son, the Hero and Danger! Women at Work, all from 1943.

However, that momentum didn’t maintain. Cresting on a wave of popularity, the once–in-demand actress found herself nearly unemployable by the mid-1940s and ended up taking work as a domestic. Theories to explain why Hollywood was no longer interested in one of its most bankable comic actresses inevitably turn toward Kelly’s hard drinking. But others have claimed that it was her openness about her homosexuality that was most off-putting in a Hollywood that was still a good 45 years from setting a collective toe out of the closet. (She admitted to author Boze Hadleigh in his book Hollywood Lesbians (1996), which was published after the deaths of all the interviewees, that she was gay.) It was Tallulah Bankhead (hardly one to be taken aback by drinking or homosexuality) who ended Kelly's long creative dry spell by hiring her as support in the play Dear Charles in 1954. The two carried on a long, stormy and relatively above-ground relationship for years afterward.


Kelly was a fixture on television in the 1960s, making guest appearances on classic shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bonanza, Laredo and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. She returned sporadically to movies as well, with featured roles in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960), Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1964), The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966) and perhaps most memorably as Laura-Louise, one of the sinister coven who befriend Mia Farrow and then betray her to Satan in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). (Her admonition to a horrified Rosemary when the severity of the coven’s satanic plan is revealed to the new mother is one of the film’s comic highlights: “Oh, shut up with your ‘Oh, God!”s or we’ll kill you, milk or no milk!”)

She returned to Broadway in 1971 in the revival of No, No, Nanette with hoofers Ruby Keeler and Helen Gallagher scoring a huge success as the wise-cracking, tap-dancing maid and winning Broadway's 1971 Tony Award as Best Supporting or Featured Actress for her performance in the show. She topped that success the following year when she starred in Irene with Debbie Reynolds and was again nominated for a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.


Kelly (third from left) with Irregulars costars Edward Herrmann, Cloris Leachman, Karen Valentine, Virginia Capers and Barbara Harris

The actress ended her film career with two Disney movies that helped to prove that the era at the Mouse House dominated by producer Ron Miller wasn’t a complete disaster-- the original 1976 version of Freaky Friday, and the silly ensemble comedy The North Avenue Irregulars, in which Kelly butted heads (and purses and umbrellas) with a bunch of crooks as well as fellow irregulars Edward Herrmann, Cloris Leachman and Barbara Harris. Patsy Kelly died two years after the 1979 release of The North Avenue Irregulars, in 1981 at the age of 71, of cancer.


The North Avenue Irregulars marked the first time I ever saw Patsy Kelly on screen. (I might have run across her on TV as a kid, but if I did I didn’t remember who she was.) But in that movie I remember being enamored of her tough-old-broad shtick. I grew up around some tough old broads who reminded me a lot of Kelly, and so it’s no wonder I loved her. But it was only recently that I began to encounter Patsy Kelly in her prime, in the comedies and musicals that made her Hollywood name in the 1930s and 1940s. My Son, the Hero was made at the end of the first stage of Kelly’s movie career for Poverty Row director Edgar G. Ulmer. It’s a likable comedy, somewhat turgidly paced (given the lickety-split speed of the movies that can be found at its roots), with a typically farcical plot—a low-rent bookie holes up in the mansion of an associate with his girlfriend (Kelly) and a bunch of their cohorts in an attempt to convince the bookie’s returning war-hero son that his old man is a moneyed big shot. Roscoe Karns as the bookie and professional boxer-turned-actor Max “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom as his gigantic good-natured henchman turn in some pretty snappy work amid Ulmer’s no-frills mise-en-scene (Maxie turns to the camera during one would-be frenetic episode and mutters, “What a screwy picture!”) But Kelly provides My Son, the Hero with whatever oomph that it has, and it seems a rarity among her credits that actually allows the dumpling-shaped actress to bring a bit of sex appeal onto the screen, albeit her own brassy variety.


Much, much better is the other Patsy Kelly vehicle I managed to see in the last month, the gee-whiz college romp Pigskin Parade, which, among other things, happens to be the film debut of Judy Garland. Of course, this bit of casting is probably now the primary reason why most people will pay any kind of attention to Pigskin Parade, along with the early peeks it provides of Jack Haley, Jr., an incredibly sexy Betty Grable, Grady Sutton, Stuart Erwin and even, if you look real close, Alan Ladd. It’s a very typical comedy of the period—lowly Texas State University is invited by Yale, due to a staff miscommunication, to participate in a benefit football game. Before the Ivy League hotshots can blush and correct their mistake, the hale and hearty lads and ladies of the tiny rural campus are fit to bursting with musical energy in celebration of their big opportunity. They even bring in a big coach from the East Coast, the lecherous Slug Winters (Haley), helmed by his no-bullshit pigskin aficionado wife (Kelly), to help guide the meat-and-potatoes squad to victory.

But one night, in a hilarious scene that spotlights her nimble physical ability, Kelly confiscates a flask of gin from a couple of frisky co-eds, gets ripped on it herself and is eventually discovered by her husband drunkenly swinging from a pair of gymnastic rings while the big rally dance roars away just one door over. Suitably berated by Slug, she steps into an adjoining workout room where the team quarterback is licking his wounds after being dumped by his best gal. Mrs. Winters tries to cheer him up by showing him how to take a hit on the field and ends up causing a stack of free weights to fall on him, crushing his leg.

 

Mrs. Winters, embarrassed by her drunken behavior, is quickly enlisted by her husband to help some of the other students scout for a new quarterback. They eventually make it to the watermelon farm outside of town where Amos (Erwin), who will become the team’s bullet-throwing replacement quarterback, lives. But before they find Amos, the audience is treated to another great Kelly moment, this one a deadpan reaction to the inexplicable musical stylings of Amos’s in-bred relative, who tells the group where Amos can be found, but not before letting fly with a bizarre vocal performance that must be seen to be believed—it’s like Dueling Banjos as it would have played on a Mayberry front porch instead of one found in James Dickey's deepest, darkest Tennessee.

Pigskin Parade is in many ways a very routine musical comedy, but it’s lifted up by its bootstraps (or should that be cleat straps) through the efforts of its excellent cast, of which Patsy Kelly is one of the main anchors. Hers is a tough, sassy demeanor wrapped up in hands-on-the-hips defiance and cat-o’-nine-tails tongue lashings, yet she’s always appealing and genuine underneath the salty exterior. I’d even say that she had a very personable kind of beauty about her in her ‘30s pictures, even up through her wild turn in My Son, the Hero



It may sound odd, but while I was watching and admiring her in Pigskin Parade, and hoping I’d get to see more of her very soon, I saw a very strange confluence in her—Kelly has a frisky ingenue's energy and comic timing, as well as the unglamorous physical appeal and brassy, barking bulldog quality of the best straight-up (no pun intended) broads. She was a worthy contemporary of that other great screen dame, Barbara Stanwyck, and though she never showed the range and greatness that Stanwyck did, she carved out her own niche and honored it time and again. While watching Pigskin Parade, I kept thinking that Patsy Kelly is who might result if time and space could be breached and science could find a way to deposit Maggie Gyllenhaal, with whom she shares grace and a certain physical resemblance, and the bull-in-a-china-shop spirit of Broderick Crawford in the same body. Kelly is also a wonder and a hoot to watch all on her own, and she deserves to be remembered by a lot more movie fans than actually know who she is today.

Patsy Kelly once told an interviewer, “In 40-odd years in show business, some years I could do no wrong, and some years I could do nothing right. Show business-- I owe it everything - it owes me nothing.” Who’s Patsy Kelly? You’d be doing yourself a big favor if you were to find out.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

BEYOND THE INFINITE: STANLEY KUBRICK'S 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY RETURNS IN 70mm



People always say it, and I often do myself: “Seeing (Movie X) on the big screen again was like seeing it for the first time!” This was emphatically not true for me last night when I took my daughter  to see 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood. (It was her first experience with the movie in a theater, however—more on that in a bit.)

I first saw 2001 about a year after it was released—this was the amount of time it usually took big new releases to make it out to our patch of sticks in the small Oregon where I grew up. That would put me at about the ripe ol’ age of nine years old when I took my first trip with Stanley Kubrick to Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. The presentation was what it always was at the Alger Theater when I was a kid—images were projected on a screen, sound came from speakers behind the screen, and I was damn grateful for that. I had no idea of the point in technological breakthrough—70mm, Cinerama, stereo sound— where 2001 resided when it was shown elsewhere, and in 1969 I didn’t much care. I had read Arthur C. Clarke’s book and immersed myself in anything I could get my hands on about it in anticipation of actually seeing it for myself, but of course no amount of prep could have done the job. Regardless of how state-of-the-art the theater in which moviegoers saw it in 1968 might or might not have been, one thing was certainly true— this movie bore no resemblance to the bland musicals, stodgy adult dramas and bloated spectacles which had clogged American movie screens over the previous decade.

For my own part, I can’t say I knew exactly what I’d seen when I emerged from the dark onto the main street of my hometown (though at the time I probably thought I did). But I knew I loved it, and everything— movies, the world, everything— looked different afterward. Since that night in 1969 I’ve seen the movie many times in theaters much nicer than the Alger, including the Cinerama Dome, as well as in just about every adequate and inadequate format available on home video—laserdisc, Betamax, VHS, and commercial-riddled network TV.

But seeing 
2001: A Space Odyssey last night, in the “unrestored” 70mm print now circulating in cities around the US, a print which duplicates from the original negative the way the film was seen and heard in the best theaters upon its premiere, with no 2018-style enhancements, was a genuine eye-and-ear-opening experience. It seemed nothing like the way I saw it the first time, and in some really pronounced ways it felt as if I was seeing this movie, so familiar from countless exposures to it over the ensuing 49 years, for the first time.

And it was a thrill to take my daughter along for the ride. I spent some time beforehand trying to contextualize the state of American movies for her, and what audiences might have been inclined to expect before they sat in their seats and proceeded to make Kubrick’s cerebral consideration of the origins and evolution of civilization one of, if not the most unlikely hit in cinema history. (It was the #1 movie in terms of American box-office receipts among all releases in 1968, and of course it was re-released seemingly endlessly throughout the ‘70s, marketed to a user-friendly generation as “The Ultimate Trip.”) So I tried to put that thought into my daughter’s  head: pretend that you haven’t spent your entire life watching movies and TV shows and anime episodes which wouldn’t exist, at least in their current form, without the direct influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and instead try to see it not only the way you will see it, but also with a nod toward the way those people who had no idea what was coming once did.

Mission accomplished. In the dazed walk back to our car afterward, together we parsed out our theories of what 2001 was up to—the dawn of man, of consciousness, of utility; the appearance (and re-appearance) of some mysterious and influential semblance of the spiritual, and its influence on yet another iteration of human evolution as it assimilates into, expands and directs the function of human-generated artificial intelligence; and the emergence of some altogether new life-form, perhaps the first visitation of humanoid extra-terrestrial life, and the eruption of changes which it will inevitably set in motion. None of this seemed terribly perplexing to a young woman who, like many of the more thoughtful members of her generation, has been weaned on oblique genre-blasting, narrative-shattering approaches to storytelling. She welcomed the movie’s deliberately mysterious tenor, its disorienting spatial perspectives, and the grandeur of old-world civilization (Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss II, Aram Khachaturian) imposed on decidedly new world technology which had been employed to seek out and discover equally old, yet strange and unfamiliar worlds. And we had a great time talking about all the newfangled techno-concepts which seemed far-out in 1968 (space stations, picture phones, electronically enhanced food preparation, to name but a few), but which are now, 17 years past the actual year 2001, part of our everyday reality.


What surprised me most seeing it last night was the degree to which the 70mm presentation of 2001:  A Space Odyssey enhanced the movie’s reputation as an overwhelming sensory experience. I have always had an admiration for the way the movie adheres to its matter-of-fact tone re space travel—zero gravity, the absence of sound, and even the tedium of traveling hundreds of thousands of miles through a star-spangled vacuum. All of these elements give 2001 a specific quality of detachment, the rendering of a giant leap for mankind as something on the order of the routine, which, given Stanley Kubrick’s overall aesthetic, would hardly be unexpected. But the journey of astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) from Jupiter to Beyond the Infinite, in perhaps the movie’s most famously disorienting (“trippy,” if you must) sequence, enhanced by blinding rushes of light and ear-shattering  atonal chorales supplied by composer György Ligeti, is genuinely frightening and overwhelming, especially in this 70mm incarnation. My desensitized eardrums had no trouble with the overload—in fact, they welcomed it. But my dear daughter and her much healthier auditory system, despite earlier exposure to the movie’s intense use of amplified sound—for screeching extraterrestrial radio transmissions as well as the thunderous performances of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and “The Blue Danube Waltz”—was not, could not­ have been prepared for what the movie was, in this sequence, about to immerse her in. As a result, she came out the other side of it almost as rattled (though not as aged) as poor, haunted Bowman, himself put through a lifetime of aging in mere minutes. 

To those who have encountered 2001:  A Space Odyssey in 70mm before (and if you live in a metropolitan area you may have had many opportunities over the past 50 years since its initial release), all this “Ultimate Trip”-style talk might sound like old news. But even if you have seen it in 70mm before, chances are that the print you saw may have displayed some slight or even more significant wear-and-tear. Not so the newly minted print, which under the aegis of director Christopher Nolan (Inception, Dunkirk) premiered at the Cannes Film Festival a couple of weeks ago. This is what Kubrick’s movie looked like on Opening Day 1968 in the biggest, spiffiest venues possible, light-years ahead of the little rundown movie house in Southeastern Oregon where I first saw it. For folks like me, who to this point, no matter how times we may have seen it, still really haven’t seen or heard it at its most spectacular, 2001:  A Space Odyssey in this new 70mm print retains the power to make a viewer look at this world, and those beyond, with eyes that feel new, shaking, challenging, altering sensibilities in a way with which no other movie has since been able to compare, even the ones Kubrick himself created within the long shadow of his pioneering monolith. The movie continues in Los Angeles and other cities for at least another week, through May 31 and perhaps beyond, though not into the Infinite. Make this ultimate trip while you can, before both time and space run out.

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